Leroux's Play in Net Sparks Tiger Men's Hockey As it Rebounds From Last Season's Frustration
By Bill Alden
Eric Leroux can sense that things are looking up for this year's Princeton University men's ice hockey team.
"The team atmosphere is quite a bit better this year than it was last year," said the sophomore goalie from London, Ont. "I think we're really feeding off of it and looking to build on it. Our effort, shift-to-shift, is more consistent."
Indeed, after enduring a dreary 3-26-2 season last winter, the Tigers matched that win total before December and currently stand at 3-7 overall with a 3-5 mark in ECAC play.
A major reason for that improvement has been the play of Leroux, who has started every game for the Tigers and posted his first college shutout on November 25 when Princeton blanked Yale 3-0 before 1,541 at Baker Rink.
For Leroux, the shutout was a further indication of the strides being made by the Tigers. "A shutout is great," said Leroux with a broad grin. "It's nice for everyone because a shutout reflects an entire team effort. So many things have to go right. I had to make a couple of saves, we had some good back-checking. It was the whole gamut."
The Tigers produced a solid all-around team effort as they snapped their three-game losing streak to the Bulldogs. Princeton outscored Yale 1-0 in each period with the goals coming from Mike Patton, Mark Masters, and Dustin Sproat. The Tigers outshot Yale 33-22 and scored twice on their power play.
The 6'1, 185-pound netminder, who currently has a 3.95 goals against average, did acknowledge that he will cherish his first shutout. "I'll remember this game forever," asserted Leroux, who had 23 saves in his shutout and was particularly sharp in the first period when he turned away 10 Bulldog shots.
"I think any goalie who says it [getting a shutout] doesn't cross his mind now and again is lying. I didn't really feel particularly exceptional tonight."
Tiger head coach Len Quesnelle, however, will tell you that Leroux has been giving the club some exceptional play this season. "Eric has been playing well," said Quesnelle, whose team went on to fall 5-3 at Yale last Saturday in the second game of their home-and-home series.
"This was obviously the first shutout of his career. He was the difference for us in the third period tonight. I don't think we came out really prepared to play the way we wanted to play. He gave us a chance to come out of it. He's been very good all year long."
Quesnelle believes his team collectively is bringing a different approach to their play this season. "I think we're developing more poise," said Quesnelle, a 1988 Princeton graduate who was a standout defenseman in his playing days with the Tigers. "We have more confidence with the puck. I think that the guys are paying attention to what we're trying to do in our system of play."
The fourth year head coach who now has a 27-67-9 mark acknowledges that the team is still very much a work in progress. "This team needs to put together back-to-back great efforts," said Quesnelle, whose concern about inconsistency was borne out by the loss to Yale in the rematch last Saturday. "We've gotten a great effort and then the next night it's only been OK. At this level, OK doesn't make it." In the view of junior forward Patton, the play of Leroux could be the key to the team reaching a level of consistency. "We couldn't have asked for anything more out of Eric," said Patton. "We're confident that our goalie is going to make the stop. We're a lot more aggressive, it's really helping us. We're really starting to jell as a unit."
Patton said that the players were aware of the significance of getting their third win before the calendar hit December.
"We were joking about that in the locker room, eight games into the season and we already have as many wins as last season," said the Mechanicsburg, Pa. native who has five points this season on two goals and three assists. "It's a definitely a good sign. The more wins we get, the more things we're going to get going."
Leroux agrees that picking up the early-season wins has everybody gaining confidence. "I think everyone is doing better individually as the team does better as a whole," said Leroux, who will be looking to continue his improvement as Princeton plays at Union on December 5 and at Rensselaer on December 6.
"I'm playing with more confidence than I was last year. It's the result of more consistent starts. It makes it easier to find your rhythm."
With a goalie in rhythm like Leroux,
the Tigers could well achieve a special harmony as the season